The illusion of conscious experience

Abstract

Illusionism about phenomenal consciousness is the thesis that phenomenal consciousness does not exist, even though it seems to exist. This thesis is widely judged to be uniquely counterintuitive: the idea that consciousness is an illusion strikes most people as absurd, and seems almost impossible to contemplate in earnest. Defenders of illusionism should be able to explain the apparent absurdity of their own thesis, within their own framework. However, this is no trivial task: arguably, none of the illusionist theories currently on the market is able to do this. I present a new theory of phenomenal introspection and argue that it might deal with the task at hand.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See for example Block and Stalnaker (1999) and Yablo (1999).

  2. 2.

    I will not argue here against the Phenomenal Concept Strategy. I have provided arguments against some of its most popular versions elsewhere (Kammerer 2018b, c).

  3. 3.

    The use of the term “illusionism” has been recently popularized by Frankish (2016), even though he does not distinguish as I do between eliminativism and illusionism. Frankish also makes other distinctions, for example between weak and strong illusionism. “Weak illusionists”, contrary to strong illusionists, believe that phenomenal consciousness exists. However, they also state that consciousness seems to have some properties that it does not really have. I take it that weak illusionism constitutes an unstable position, and that strong illusionism is the best version of illusionism (Chalmers 2018, pp. 49–52; Frankish 2012). Here what I call “illusionism” is closer to what Frankish calls “strong illusionism”.

  4. 4.

    It is to be noted that neither Humphrey nor Graziano accept the term “illusionism” to characterize their theories. Humphrey once accepted the characterization but now calls himself a “phenomenal surrealist”, as he feels this term captures best the importance we give to our representation of phenomenal properties (Humphrey 2016, 2017). Graziano (2016) rejects the term “illusionism” because he wants to limit the use of the vocabulary of “illusion” to rare and abnormal dysfunctions of a detecting mechanism. However, both are illusionists in the sense I defined.

  5. 5.

    David Chalmers calls the illusion meta-problem the “resistance problem” (Chalmers 2018, p. 27), in order to avoid confusion with his own “consciousness meta-problem”.

  6. 6.

    I am in no way implying that we have a similarly deep trouble representing to ourselves a situation in which we commit a phenomenal error—i.e. a situation in which we make an incorrect judgment about our experience. What is really conceptually problematic for us is not phenomenal error, but phenomenal illusion—i.e. a situation in which everything introspectively appears to us as if we had an experience, but we do not have this experience. There are cases that can be shown to be rather intuitive cases of phenomenal errors, such as the fraternity case discussed by Pereboom (2011, pp. 22–23) and Hill (1991, pp. 128–129): a student about to be initiated in a fraternity is blindfolded and told that a razor is about to cut his throat. He feels something on his throat and judges that he is in pain; but then realizes that what he feels is simply a sensation of cold, and that an icicle has been put on his throat instead of a razor. When we think of such a situation, we can intuitively think of it as a case of phenomenal error. What is really difficult, however, is to think of this situation (or of other situations) as a case of phenomenal illusion: as a situation in which everything appears to the subject as if he had an experience of pain, while he does not have this experience, even for a short moment. I argued against interpretations of similar cases example as intuitive cases of phenomenal illusions in Kammerer (2018a, pp. 58–61).

  7. 7.

    I argued extensively for this elsewhere (Kammerer 2018a).

  8. 8.

    Again, by “phenomenal introspection” I mean the specific process by which we come to form beliefs in a non-inferential way about our own phenomenal experiences.

  9. 9.

    For some elements in favor of such an extension, see Kammerer (2016a, b, pp. 241–242).

  10. 10.

    One can find a definition and a critical overview of the “theory-theory of self-awareness” approach in (Nichols and Stich 2003, pp. 164–169). This kind of approach, broadly understood, is embraced by numerous researchers (Aydede and Güzeldere 2005; Carruthers 1996, 2005, 2011; Frith 2002; Frith and Happé 1999; Gazzaniga 1970; Gopnik 1993; Gopnik and Meltzoff 1994; Graziano 2013; Nisbett and Wilson 1977; Reuter 2013, 2014).

  11. 11.

    Many philosophers of science (following Hanson 1958) have talked about the “theory-ladenness” of scientific observation—meaning that the content of scientific observations is at least partially determined by the theories embraced by the scientists doing the observations. Churchland (1979), drawing on such views, has claimed that first-person ascriptions of mental states were theory-laden in a similar sense. When I say that introspection is a theoretically informed activity, my view bears some similarity to his, except that I crucially claim (more on this shortly) that the theory of mind which determines introspection is not a theory we can choose to embrace or not: it functions at the sub-personal level and takes the form of an innate module.

  12. 12.

    A subsystem is informationally encapsulated and partially inaccessible to the central system when there are important restrictions in the information that can flow from the rest of the system to the subsystem (encapsulation) or from the subsystem to the central system (partial central inaccessibility). A subsystem is domain-specific when the class of objects and properties it processes information about is relatively narrow.

  13. 13.

    So, phenomenal introspective representations are conceptual. I think that one could hold a quite similar view, in which phenomenal introspective representations are seen as pre-conceptual (even though a few complications would arise).

  14. 14.

    Following a widespread convention, I write “〈x〉” to refer to the concept of x.

  15. 15.

    Our theory of mind does not consist in a set of stated principles, but in a set of representational and inferential capacities. However, it is quite convenient to present it under the form of principles.

  16. 16.

    In other words, this means that there is nothing in reality that satisfies together the four principles of our naïve theory of mind presented earlier. As an anonymous reviewer points out, principles (1), (2) and (4) could plausibly be satisfied by something purely physical. Arguably, a satisfying physicalist theory of the mind would vindicate the idea that states of affairs can appear to subjects in virtue of the internal states of these subjects (and, trivially, that these internal states can be individuated by the states of affairs they make appear). For that reason, the kind of eliminativism I suggest here concerns exclusively entities that would not only satisfy principles (1), (2) and (4), but also, crucially, principle (3)—the Principle of Resemblance. What I deny is that there are internal states of subjects which make states of affairs appear to subjects if and only if they maximally resemble these states of affairs.

  17. 17.

    The way I understand it, terms such as “phenomenal consciousness” express a concept which corresponds to the conceptual operator 〈experience〉. For this reason, if this concept is not satisfied (as I claim), phenomenal consciousness does not exist. That makes my position a variety of strong illusionism. If weak illusionists were to use the TCE, on the other hand, they would use the term “phenomenal consciousness” differently: they would state that phenomenal consciousness does exist though it does not have the properties it seems to have—notably, it does not satisfy our conceptual operator 〈experience〉, though it seems to satisfy it. A position of this kind would, as a weak illusionist one, fall under the category “type-B physicalism” (according to which consciousness is reducible to some physical process, even though this reduction will always remain opaque, and maybe also deeply counter-intuitive), while strong illusionism is more naturally associated with type-A physicalism. As such, a position of this type would encounter the problems which are typical of type-B physicalism in general, and of weak illusionism in particular (Chalmers 2018, pp. 49–52; Frankish 2012).

  18. 18.

    We can for example think of Aristotle’s theory of perception developed in the De Anima, which influenced most of the western medieval conceptions of perception, or of Epicurus theory of perception, which posits the existence of simulacra of things as the basis of perceptual states.

  19. 19.

    It could be the case that we judge Julie to be receptively affected in a way that resembles the presence of a red rose in front of her, but that is not the way that resembles the most this state of affairs. For example, let’s consider the receptive affections that we would call an “experience of an orange rose” or an “experience of a pink rose”. Our theory of mind would characterize them as resembling the presence of a red rose, but not as being the affections that most resemble the presence of a red rose (this would be an experience of a red rose). On this matter, two things should be remarked. First, when it comes to states of affairs that are not concretely fully determined, but are partially abstract (for example, let’s not consider the presence of red rose with such shape and such hue and such distance but rather the presence of red), there will be many different affections that will be judged to equally maximally resemble this state of affairs, so that it will be impossible to determine a unique kind of affection that is “truly” (and uniquely) an experience of red. Therefore, an experience of a red rose, an experience of a red car, an experience of a red circle, etc., can all be called “experiences of red”. And it is only for concretely fully determined states of affairs that we can expect that one will be able to determine a single kind of receptive affection that constitutes an experience making this state of affairs appear. Second, we sometimes group together experiences simply because we take it that they are caused by a single kind of object. For example, we can talk of “experiences of roses”. But of course, one can have a visual experience of a rose, an olfactory experience of a rose, a tactile experience of a rose, etc. And if all these experiences, according to our theory of mind, maximally resemble some state of affairs when taken individually (states of affairs respectively described with sensory visual concepts, sensory olfactory concepts, sensory tactile concepts), it is unlikely that we judge that there is a unique state of affairs that all of them happen to maximally resemble. This means that, according to our theory of mind, there is no such thing, from an experiential point of view, as an “experience of a rose” simpliciter: such an expression does not correspond to any real experiential kind. However, this does not contradict the fact that we talk easily enough about experiences of roses. It simply means that we linguistically construct an expression that refers to a disjunction of what our theory of mind may consider as “real” experiential kinds (visual experiences of roses, olfactory experiences of roses, etc).

  20. 20.

    In what follows, I do not draw any distinction between illusions and hallucinations, and I just take “illusion” to mean “nonveridical appearance”.

  21. 21.

    This kind of view regarding colors has been defended throughout the history of philosophy, at least since Galileo and Descartes and maybe since the works of ancient Atomists. Many contemporary philosophers have defended similar views (Chalmers 2006; Hardin 1988; Maund 2006). The analogy between illusionism regarding consciousness and illusionism regarding primitive colors is used, in defense of illusionism regarding consciousness, by Pereboom (2011). One problem of his view, in my opinion (Kammerer 2018a), is that it precisely fails to explain why illusionism regarding consciousness poses some peculiar extra difficulty when compared with illusionism regarding primitive colors.

  22. 22.

    Which explains naturally why saying that phenomenality is an illusion is “the sort of thing that can only be done by a philosopher—or by someone else tying themselves in intellectual knots” (Chalmers 1996, p. 188). But of course, in my view, this does not count as a criticism of illusionism.

  23. 23.

    TCE theory bears some similarity in spirit to a view I defended in previous work (Kammerer 2016c). If I set aside the fact that TCE is developed in more details, the two main differences are the following. (1) In my previous view, the intuitive impossibility of nonveridical appearances of experiences stems from the fact that our naïve theory of the mind posits that, in order for something to be a nonveridical appearance of X, it has to be a state entirely similar, from an experiential point of view, to a true appearance of X. However, this can easily come across as an arbitrary supposition. TCE theory shows how the intuitive impossibility of nonveridical appearances of experiences can itself be seen as consequence of a more general principle, which our theory of mind more plausibly contains, namely, the principle of resemblance. (2) Positing this more general principle within our theory of mind allows TCE theory, not only to predict that we will judge that experiences cannot appear nonveridically, but also to predict that we will judge them to be self-intimating. The idea that phenomenal states are self-intimating seems to be so well confirmed by introspection that it features, in some version, in a vast number of philosophical theories: Descartes, Locke, Brentano, Husserl and Chisholm naturally come to mind. More recently, a number of analytic philosophers have defended similar views (BonJour 2000; Fumerton 1995; Kriegel 2009). For this reason, I take it that a correct theory of phenomenal introspection should predict that phenomenal states will come out as self-intimating. Therefore, I think it is an advantage of my new view that it makes such a prediction.

  24. 24.

    Given the way in which the self-intimating character of consciousness and the infallibility of introspection have been derived from the principles of our naïve theory of mind, it should be clear to readers that close variants of the TCE could allow for very similar derivations. For example, one could consider variants of the TCE in which the Principle of Resemblance is replaced by another principle, which does not appeal to the relation of resemblance, but to another relation R, as soon as relation R satisfies some relevant structural constraint (notably: (i) Relation R must relate a state x, which will necessarily be a receptive affection, and a state y, which can be a receptive affection or not (ii) If state y is itself a receptive affection, any state x which enters in relation R with y will be a receptive affection of the same type; (iii) Every given receptive affection x will stand in the relation R to a receptive affection of the same type as itself). Our intuitive relation of resemblance happens to satisfy these constraints, and a concept of resemblance arguably features amongst our basic and intuitive concepts, which is why I formulated TCE using the Principle of Resemblance. However, a philosopher who likes the way in which TCE predicts that experiences will be conceived of as self-intimating, and infallibly introspectively grasped, but does not like its presupposition that our naïve theory of mind contains the Principle of Resemblance, could take inspiration from it and build alternative theories with alternative principles (instead of the Principle of Resemblance) appealing to relations which respect these structural constraints.

  25. 25.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection.

  26. 26.

    I am aware of the difficulties that such interpretation raises: my view notably implies that, as soon as we deny that there is a resemblance between experiences and real external objects, we should be intuitively illusionists (rather than reductionists) about secondary qualities such as colors. But numerous philosophers seem to have easily endorsed reductionist views of such qualities. My answer would be that there is a sense of “quality” (corresponding to the edenic content of sensory concepts) such that, as soon as we deny that our experiences really resemble external objects, we will intuitively be illusionists about qualities. However, there may be other motivations to use the word “quality” in a different sense (corresponding to the ordinary content of sensory concepts), which would lead one to explicitly defend a reductionist view of such qualities. This duality of sense is of course essential from an epistemological point of view: in the first sense of “quality”, post-cartesian philosophers will think that qualities are not instantiated and that our experiences presenting them are all illusory. In the second sense of “quality”, they will think that qualities are instantiated, and that our experiences presenting them (in an indirect way, mediated by the presentation of primitive qualities which are not really instantiated) are often veridical (which seems crucial to save the epistemological role of experiences).

  27. 27.

    An anonymous reviewer pointed out that my view of phenomenal introspection, according to which we conceive of experiences as making states of affairs appear to subjects in virtue of their resemblance with these states of affairs, bears some similarities with U.T. Place’s idea according to which we commit a “phenomenological fallacy” about consciousness: Place states that we mistakenly suppose that when a subject “describes his experience, when he describes how things look, sound smell, taste of feel to him, he is describing the literal properties of objects and events on a peculiar sort of internal cinema or television screen” (Place 1956, pp. 49–50). This fallacy [that Chalmers Chalmers (2018, pp. 29–30) analyzes as a particular case of what Avenarius (1891) called “introjection”] is, according to Place, what explains our intuitive resistance to materialism regarding consciousness. However, there are important differences between my view and Place’s view. First, I think that we are not led to think that there is such resemblance between experiences and the states of affairs they make appear because we commit a fallacy (a kind of reasoning mistake), but because of some inescapable low-level and modular features of our introspective mechanisms [and I argued against attempts at explaining our problematic intuitions regarding consciousness as resulting from a fallacy elsewhere (Kammerer 2018b)]. Second, I think that the idea according to which experiences make states of affairs appear to subjects in virtue of their resemblance with these states of affairs crucially creates problematic intuitions regarding consciousness because it leads us to ascribe a special epistemological status to consciousness (self-intimation, introspective infallibility). This point is crucial in my account, while it does not play a similar role in Place’s view.

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Acknowledgements

I want to thank Uriah Kriegel for his extremely valuable comments and remarks. I also want to thank Keith Frankish, Rob Rupert and Samuel Webb for their help and their comments, as well as two anonymous reviewers.

Funding

Funding was provided by ANR (Grant Nos. ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC, ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL*) and Fonds De La Recherche Scientifique—FNRS.

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Correspondence to François Kammerer.

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Kammerer, F. The illusion of conscious experience. Synthese 198, 845–866 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02071-y

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Keywords

  • Consciousness
  • Illusionism
  • Introspection
  • Metaphysics
  • Physicalism